Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Curiosities of London Life, or Phases, Physiological and Social of the Great Metropolis, by Charles Manby Smith, 1853


    One dismally foggy and rainy afternoon in November last, when the streets, clothed in a viscid garment of thick and slippery mud, were passable only at a snail's pace, because every step forward sent you half a step back again-when no one whom fate, or equally inexorable business, did not drive forth, ventured to brave the misty atmosphere fraught with catarrh and influenza - I heard the sound of a fiddle outside my window. The strain was a melancholy attempt at a Scotch reel; and the incongruity of the spectacle it conjured up to my imagination compared with the actual scene before my eyes, had just awaked me to the perception of the comic, when the music ceased on a sudden in the middle of the second stave, and I heard the sound of a fall; and a faint ejaculation, half-sigh, half-groan, which immediately followed, brought me to the door to see what was the matter.
    It was already getting dark, independently of the fog, and I could hut dimly discern a dusky mass lying by the garden gate; but I could hear the plaintive moans that proceeded from it; and soon, with the help of Betty, whom I had summoned to my assistance, got the wretched bundle of humanity into a chair in front of the glowing kitchen fire. A few spoonsful of diluted brandy soon brought life and animation into a weather-beaten face, and produced from livid lips the eager, almost savage request, "For God's sake, give me a bit of vittles!"
    "When did you eat last?"
    "Not since yesterday morning. I had a bit of bread yesterday morning."
    "Oh!" said Betty, "aint that horrid, and he a blind man - as blind as a stone?" Giving the necessary directions, I left Betty to manage her blind patient in her own way, and in about an hour afterwards went down to see what improvement she had effected.
    The poor fellow, having satisfied the demands of nature, and supplied his own wants, had immediately begun to attend to those of his inseparable companion-his cracked, patched, and dilapidated fiddle. I found him airing it tenderly before the fire; then, having borrowed a cloth from Betty, he employed himself in cleansing the crazy instrument from the moist breath of the fog, and from the contaminations it had picked up through his fall. This accomplished, he began feeling it all over as cautiously as a surgeon does the body of a patient in search of a fracture. Fortunately there was no serious mischief done, and the poor fellow laughed cheerfully when he discovered that the only friend he had in the world had escaped unhurt.
    "Well, my man," said I, "how do you get on? Not hungry now, I hope?"
    "Bless ee, sir, no! I m righter than a trivet now, sir. I ha'nt had sich a feed I can't tell ee when, sir. I m very much obleeged to you, sir, surely. I wor altogether done up, and that's a fact."
    "Well, then, perhaps you have no objection to return the favour we have done you by telling me how you came to be a blind fiddler, what you get by it, how you manage to live, and all about it!"
    "Not a bit of objection in the world, sir, if you likes to hear it. There aint much fun in what I got to tell though, cos I ha'nt had much luck in my time: but if you wish to hear it, of course you shall, and I'll begin at the beginning. I'm quite agreeable, sir."
    With that, laying his fiddle to rest in an old black bag which he drew from the crown of a crushed hat, and settling his arms on the elbows of the chair, so as to rest his whole frame in a state of unaccustomed luxury, he delivered himself literally, with the exception of certain circumlocutions which I have thought fit to digest into something like order and consecutiveness, pretty much to the following effect: - "I aint but a youngish man, sir, though they do tell me that I looks a reg'lar old file. What might you suppose my age, sir?"
    "From forty-eight to fifty, or thereabouts."
    "There tis agin. Everybody says I'm fifty, when I'm not forty yet. I was born in 1811, sir, in Swan Alley, not far from the Artillery Ground. My father wor a shoemaker - perhaps I ought to say a cobbler, for he didn't make many shoes; good reason why, he was always a-mendin' on em. When I was a very little un, I rek'lect partik'lar they was a-making the Regent's Canal as runs under the City Road, and I used to get out afore I was big enough to wear trowsers, and make mud-pies out of the clay as was turned up. That was the best fun I ever knowed, that was; but didn't I get the strap when my father catched me at it? Ah, I knows what strap-sauce is well enough! He wanted to teach me- cos I was the biggest boy - to make wax-ends, and I wanted to make mud-pies; and many's the lickin' I got along o' that there canal a-diggin'. I never passes the bridge now without thinkin' on it. Then, you know, I could see - had as good use of my eyes as anybody. Ha! well! taint no use grievin'.
    "Mother died, and left four on us when I was about five years old, and then we got more strap and less vittles, I can tell ee. Father got savage, an' took to drinkin', and we never dared to have a bit o' lark 'cept when he was out o' doors. One night, when he was gone to the public-house, we was all a-playin' and larkin' in the room, and my brother, out o' fan, pushed me right over the kit into the fire. I fell with my face slap in the middle of the hot coals, and was so frightened that I couldn't make no attempt to get out, cos my legs was up in the air again' the kit. My two brothers and sister sung out a good un, and a ooman as lived up-stairs come down and picked me out. I was took off to the hospital, where I laid for seven months, and a'most died wi' brain fever. Then I was sent home again, stone-blind, and father give me a hidin' for tumblin' into the fire, as if I hadn't had punishment enough. But I didn't care much for that. I had friends in the court, among the women and the gals, and I got a deal more vittles and kindness than I did afore.
    "When I was old enough, I was sent to the Blind Asylum, where I learned to make baskets and mats. I can make clothes-baskets and hampers, and that sort of work, well enough; but the trade is so much cut up by the shops that it aint worth doin'. If I makes a basket for a washerooman for three shillins, it costs me half-a-crown for the willows. It aint much better with the mats - the rope costs almost the money they fetch. I left the asylum when I was sixteen, and lived along with another blind man as made hampers for the wine-merchants. He had a pretty good trade, and I might ha' done well along of him if I could ha' carr'd home the goods; but it aint no go for a blind man to get about the streets o' London wi' five or six hampers on his head. I tried it once or twice, and got shoved head-foremost into a butcher's shop by some chaps as wanted a lark; so he couldn't send me out no more, and he couldn't go hisself. I had two years of that there hamper-work, and got the rheumatiz dreadful through workin' in a damp cellar all day long, and I was obliged to give it up -to go into the hospital again.
    "When I come out I didn't know where to go, and what I was to do. My father had moved away somewheres, and my two brothers had gone to sea. So I went to my parish, and had a go of the workhouse for matter of a year. There was a blind man in there as played the fiddle uncommon well, and the overseer made him show me a bit, and paid a goodish bit o' money for teachin' of me. I scraped away whenever they would let me, for I wanted to get out of the workhouse, and I picked up a tidy lot of tunes in four or five months. By the time I'd been at it a year, I thought I might manage to pick up a livin', and I turned out one mornin', when the summer was a-comin' on, and begun fiddlin' in the streets. I didn't get much the first day- not quite sixpence I think twas- but I wouldn't go back upon the parish. I could lodge for a shillin' a week, and I could get a bit of broken vittles at times when folks wouldn't give me no money. I liked my liberty too well, after the confinement -first of the damp cellar, then of the hospital, and then in the workhouse - and I made up my mind to get my own livin' without hem' beholden to nobody. So I've a-fiddled pretty well ever since.
    "When I were two-and twenty, I took it into my head uncommon as how I should like to learn to read; so I went and applied at the Blind School in Red Lion Square, and used to go there and learn to read two or three nights of a week. There was a good many there, and some on 'em learned to read very well, and some couldn't learn nohow. I got on tolerablish. I went to the school more nor a year. We didn't pay nothin' for teachin'- only for the books: the books is very dear; the letters sticks up, and we feels 'em with our fingers. I gave four shillins for Izayer. I can read all on it, and John's Gospel too. That's all I got. I can't afford to buy no more.
    "At the Blind School I fell in with a young ooman as was learnin' to read. I kep company with her for five year, and then I married her. We've a been married nigh upon twelve year. She was born blind - never had no eyes in her head, not at all. She can do everything in a house as well a'most as them as can see: she can cook a meal's vittles beautiful, when we got it to be cooked. She sews with her needle, and mends my clothes, and does the washin' and ironin'. We are often very bad off, partik'lar at this time of the year. People don't care much about fiddlin' and music in cold and wet weather: they walks away to keep theirselves warm; and forgits to give a fellar a copper.
    "I knows London all over, cept some of the new streets, and I knows them when I been through em once. I goes from Islington, where I lives, to the City, three times a week. When I come to a street where a customer of mine lives, I begins and numbers the houses with my stick, and then I strikes up when I comes to the house, and plays till I gets my penny or my bread and cheese. I always eats a piece of bread in the mornin' afore I goes out; if I don't I gits the stomach-ache. Sometimes I don't git no more all the day; but I gits bread and cheese at a house in Clerkenwell every Tuesday, and a good pint o' tea and a poun' a'most o' bread every Friday in Little Saint Thomas Apostle. You see I can't fiddle very well, cos my right arm is shrivelled up wi' the fire, and I can't draw the bow rightly level with the bridge athout I sits down; and in course I can't sit down while I am walkin' about the streets; so it aint many coppers I gits from chance customers. My reg'lar customers mostly gives me a penny a week: when they moves, I follers 'em wherever they goes: I can't afford to lose 'em; they brings me in, all on 'em, about three-and-sixpence a week, besides the vittles. Taint much vittles I eats at home, save on Sundays, and a bit o' bread for breakfast afore I starts out of a mornin'.
    "There's lots o' blind men in London as gets a 1ivin' without earnin' of it. I knows one as sits all day in the City Road a-readin' the Bible wi' his finger, and people thinks it's wonderful clever, and gives him a sight o' money. A poun' a week aint nothin' to him. But that there's a imposition; there aint nothin' in it. I can read as well as he every bit; but people hadn't ought to get their bread by readin' the Bible and doin' of nothin'; it aint respectable. I gives the people music: if they don't think it worth nothin', they gives me nothin' for it; if they do, they gives me a copper, and very glad to git it. There's some blind men as keeps standins in the street, and sells sticks, and braces, and padlocks, and key-rings; some on 'em drives a good trade. I knows one as got a family brought up quite respectable - the boys is prentices, and the gals goes to service. I should like to keep a standin' myself if I had a few poun' s to begin with; but, Lord! I never had but one sovereign in my hand in my life, and that wasn't mine. There's lots o' blind men goes about wi' dogs tied to a string: them's beggars. When a blind man drives a dog, he've a-made up his mind to be a gentleman. A dog aint of no real use to a blind man in London - not a bit in the world. A dog is a blind beggar's sign; and when the dog carries a tray in his mouth to catch the coppers, then there's two beggars instead o' one. There's a sight o' blind men in London as can see as well as you can. They starts out when tis dark, wi' great patches over their eyes, and goes wi' a boy-a young thief-to lead em, among the crowds and in the markets of a Saturday night. When they gets into the thick of it they sings out, 'Good Christians! for the love of Heaven bestow your charity upon the poor blind-and God preserve your precious eyesight.' That's their chant. They gits a lot o' money from the people, partik'lar on Saturday nights, when the small change is flyin' about; them's robbers, an' nothin' else. There's some poor fellows as I knows as can't do nothin' for a livin'. Blind men is often weak in the head-a bit silly-like. They mostly lives in work-houses; sometimes they tries it on wi' lucifer- matches: they likes to get out in the sun in summer-time and fine weather: I pities them, poor fellows! tis hard luck they've got.
    "I'm always cheerful-minded 'cept when I'm very hungry and got nothin' to take home to my wife. We don't want rnuch - 'tis very little as keeps her; but I don't like to go home without nothin' in my pocket: then I sometimes thinks tis too bad, and gets low-spirited; but I soon goes to sleep and forgits it, cos I'm so tired when I goes home. My wife earns somethin' most weeks; sometimes she looks arter little children when their mothers goes out a-charin. She haves three-halfpence a day for a child: when we got two babies for a week that makes eighteenpence, and pays the rent. A good thing that would be if we could do it always. She's very fond o' little babies, and knows how to do for 'em as well as a mother a'most, though she never had none of her own.
    "Saturday's my best day. My customers knows I can't play the fiddle of a Sunday, and so I gits a good allowance of vittles and fills my bag. There's a butcher not far off as gives me a reg'lar good stew o' bones an' cuttin's every Saturday night. That's my Sunday's dinner, and a famous dinner my wife makes on it. There's a policeman out here as collars me reg'lar whenever my bag's a bit full, and turns it all out, and axes me where I stole it. I says: 'I'll answer that there question at the station-house, if you likes to take me there;' but he never takes me up. That's a noosance, that is!
    "I never buys no clothes; I git as much as I want gave me. The boots is the worst. In course I never gits them till they're worn out; and as I cant afford to have 'em mended, when it rains my feet is always in the wet; but I'm pretty well used to it-that's one good thing. This time o' the year tis very bad: there is so much bad weather, and so few people about, a blind fiddler might as well stay at home. There's been nothin' but rain all the week. I only earned twopence yesterday, and that just made up the rent as was over-due: there was nothin' for supper, though I'd had nothin' all day but a bit o' bread in the mornin', and to-day there was none for me to have, so I come away without any. My wife have had her vittles to-day, that's one comfort: she went out afore I did to go a-washin'; she'll earn sixpence besides her vittles-and we shall have a good supper to-night, thank God!
    "I've had a good many accidents in my time. There is so many omnibuses now, that a blind man can't venture off the pavement. It takes me half an hour sometimes to get across from the "Angel" into the City Road. I've been knocked down by cabs and omnibuses six or seven times; I never got much hurt myself, but my fiddle have been broke all to pieces several times. I always mend it myself, but it's a deal o' trouble and loss of time while the glue's a-dryin'. Drunken men is worse than omnibuses. I've been beat about by drunken men many's the time, cos I couldn't play the tunes they wanted. I never goes into a public-house now: I had so many tricks put upon me, that I finds it better to keep away. I was a'most killed once by a lot o' Irishmen: they knocked me about dreadful, and filled my fiddle full o' beer, and then made me play upon it, and cut the strings while I was a-playin'. They done that cos I'm a very little fellow, and got no strength. That's too bad ! Sometimes gentlefolks is none too civil. Just afore I come to your gate, I tried at a house a little way down the road: a gentleman come a rushin.' out, catches me by the throat, and twistis me roun' and roun', and shoves me over the steps, a-swearin' as how he'd got two scrapers at his door a'ready, and didn't want another. That aint civil, seem' I fiddles as well as I can, and he got no call to pay for it if he ha'nt a mind to.
    "I dont know as I can tell you anythin' more, sir. You see I don't know much of the world. All days is pretty much alike to me: wet or dry, hot or cold, is all the difference between one day and another. We does the best we can. When the sun shines, and people walks about and enjoys their-selves, I gits a little money, and my wife and I is cheerful and contented. When the bad wintry weather comes down upon us, we do feel what it is to be hungry and poor; but we can't help it, and it aint no use frettin'. We might git into the workhouse in the winter if we liked, but then we must sell up all our sticks, and I should lose all my customers where I plays reg' lar, and have to begin the world agin when we come out in the summer. It wouldn't do, that wouldn't.
    "My wife's a merry little ooman, and can go without a dinner and never grumble: many's the day she gits no vittles, no more than myself. When there aint no vittles in the cupboard, and no means of earnin' any, I tells her not to git up, and so she lies abed all day, cos tis easier fastin' in bed than when you are up and about. If I brings home anythin', then she gits up and cooks it, and then we're all right. We always hopes for better times, and if we don't live to see 'em why then we shan't grieve for the want of em. I plays the song, There's a good time comin', boys, and my wife sings it. There's no harm in hopin' that we may all live to see it. That's all I've got to say, sir.
    With that this uncomplaining heir of adverse fortune rose from his seat, placed his fiddle under his arm, and thanking me warmly for all favours, groped his way up the kitchen stairs and took his departure. I have given his history as he detailed it: it has had no colouring and requires no comment at my hands. It is just one of those revelations of the mysteries of common life which are only remarkable because the world in general has not chosen to make them the object of remark. But verily it has a use and a signification which discontented respectability, cushioned in its easy-chair, may do well to ponder.